The contrast between October and December 1621 in Plymouth is a telling illustration of culture Pilgrim-style. In October, the Pilgrims held what has come to be called the First Thanksgiving. It lasted several days, featuring marksmanship and other contests in addition to good food. In short, it was about as communal and festive as the Pilgrims could ever be. Two months later, however, on “the day called Christmas Day,” their leader, Governor William Bradford, recorded in his journal that he “called them out to work.”
That was normal. For the Pilgrims, Dec. 25 was a day just like any other. Christmas, they thought, was a “papist” invention. Unlike their feast days, they couldn’t find it in the Bible, so they wouldn’t celebrate it. The previous year, they had spent their first Christmas in Plymouth splitting lumber.
But a year later not everyone agreed. Some newly arrived colonists objected that “it went against their consciences to work” on Christmas. So Bradford grudgingly excused them “till they were better informed” and led the wiser, more veteran colonists away to work. Returning at noon, however, he was horrified to discover the newcomers “in the street at play, openly” engaged in various sports.